By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 7 January 2015)
Orphaned kittens can sometimes be placed with a foster cat (a nursing mother with her own litter), as queens are often willing to adopt additional kittens. This is an ideal situation, but it is usually not possible. When a kitten is motherless, he must be socialized by human caretakers.
Like human infants, kittens can’t thrive without touch and affection. Kittens should be held and stroked for several hours each day, and single kittens should be given a soft toy to snuggle up to when their caretakers aren’t holding them.
It’s a good idea to get kittens used to being groomed, placed on their backs, carried around, and examined for health issues (i.e., looking in the mouth, under the tail, and in the ears) at a young age. Kittens that are handled frequently are far more comfortable with handling as adults, and are better able to tolerate veterinary examinations.
Avoiding Single Kitten Syndrome
Orphaned kittens are at a social disadvantage because they miss out on the opportunity to learn appropriate feline social behaviours from their mothers. Single orphaned kittens are doubly disadvantaged, because they don’t even have the benefit of social interaction with their siblings.
Orphaned kittens, particularly singletons, may fail to learn feline etiquette, and so they will never behave appropriately around other cats. This can make it difficult to integrate them into multicat households later on. There is also a greater risk that they will become excessively attached to their human caretakers and dislike other people.
Ideally, orphans should be raised with other orphans for comfort and social development, but this isn’t always possible. Getting another slightly older kitten to keep the singleton company can be beneficial, assuming that both kittens are healthy.
If you have a friendly, gentle adult cat with a clean bill of health (and a veterinary check-up has established the health of the kitten as well), the adult can be a friend and mentor, helping the kitten to learn appropriate social skills. As an added bonus, the kitten may learn to use the litter box from watching the adult, making litter training easier.
Stopping Kittens from Biting
Biting is a particularly common problem with single orphaned kittens. Littermates teach one another not to bite too hard, because biting generates negative reactions (yowling, biting back, etc.), but lone kittens don’t receive this instant feedback.
To avoid raising a biter, never play roughly with kittens or encourage them to bite your hands and feet. This behaviour won’t be cute when the cat is full grown and by that time, it will be nearly impossible to break the habit. Handle kittens gently and teach children to do the same.
The following strategies have been used successfully by those who have raised orphan kittens:
- Keeping your hand or foot still and saying “no” in a firm voice until the kitten lets go (moving your hand or foot will make the kitten think that you want to play)
- Using aversive stimuli, such as blowing in the kitten’s face or clapping your hands while he is actually biting (doing this after he has let go will just confuse and frighten him)
- Yelling “ow” or something similar when the kitten is biting to provide feedback that mimics the yowl of a hurt littermate
- Distracting the kitten with toys to redirect the aggression toward appropriate objects, and offering praise when he attacks a toy rather than a person or other pet
- Getting up and leaving the kitten alone directly after a biting incident so as not to give the behaviour any attention
Whatever strategy or combination of strategies is used, it’s important to consistently signal that biting is inappropriate. However, caretakers should never use punishment with kittens. Scolding and hitting will actually increase aggression, because the kitten will just assume that you’re upping the aggression levels because you want to play rough. Either he’ll become frightened and anxious or he’ll rise to the challenge, increasing his own aggression accordingly.
Preventing Phobias in Kittens
A kitten’s critical period for socialization occurs from 2 to 14 weeks of age, with 2 to 8 weeks being a particularly sensitive time for establishing lifelong impressions. The best way to help any kitten develop a calm, easy-going temperament is to expose him to as many experiences as possible. Facilitate interactions with different types of people, pets, and situations. If the kitten has positive experiences with men, women, children, cats, dogs, car rides, and other individuals and activities, he is far less likely to develop phobias, and will be friendlier and better able to cope with new experiences in adulthood.
An adult cat will usually be comfortable with anything that he has experienced regularly as a kitten, as long as the experience was pleasant. The key is to make these interactions and experiences enjoyable. In particular, interactions with young children and other pets should be supervised to ensure that they don’t do anything to frighten or harm the kitten. Without such precautions, attempts at socialization can backfire, and unless he is extremely laid back by nature, the kitten may grow up generally fearful and neurotic, or develop specific phobias of other animals or children.
See the Pregnant Cats and Kittens Page for information on caring for pregnant cats, kitten development week by week, kitten training, kitten care, and more. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Burns, Tabitha, LVT. (n.d.). Hand-Raising Orphaned Kittens. TheCatPracticepc.com.
- Dodman, Nicholas, Dr. (2009). “Orphaned Cats – Their Mental and Social Needs.” Petplace.com.
- Freeman, Sue. (n.d.). Guide to Rescue Cats. RescueGuide.com.
- Nelson, Kris, Dr. (17 June 2009). “Socializing Orphan Kittens.” DrNelsonsVeterinaryBlog.com.
- Neville, Peter, & Bessant, Claire. (1997). The Perfect Kitten: How to Raise a Problem-Free Cat. London, UK: Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd.